Mark Gill, marketing head of Miramax, read the script for Dead by Monday, a romantic comedy about a writer and young widow who want to commit suicide, on a plane trip to New York. He called my producer Margrit Ritzmann at 6 a.m. in Toronto, and we were convinced that our financing marathon of two years was finally over. “I liked Dead by Monday and rarely laughed so much reading a script on a plane,” Gill told us.
Our elation lasted exactly as long as his marketing team took to “analyze the sales potential” of Dead by Monday. Miramax didn’t like a film without a star, and they didn’t know how to sell a “comedy about suicide.” About 10 other European companies said exactly the same thing, until Margrit met German producer Uli Felsberg of Road Movies (who received an Oscar nomination with director Wim Wenders for Buena Vista Social Club). Not only did Uli love the script, but he also wanted to co-produce the film. With Uli on board, many of the previously closed doors opened.
We were able to do pre-sales to France, Italy, Germany and Norway. We had already gotten money from the Swiss Public Broadcaster SF DRS (who had co-financed our first movie, Waiting for Michelangelo) and from Swissimage, the Swiss Cultural Fund. But we still needed another $300,000, so we explored gap financing (prohibitively expensive for a low-budget film) and knocked on the doors of the Swiss Federal Film Fund. From their reaction we gathered that they don’t appreciate Swiss moviemakers who: 1. shoot their movies in English and 2. run off to shoot the damned thing in a suburb of Hollywood known as Toronto. I’d been told many times that in this town (Zurich) there are billions of dollars just waiting to be parked. Well, most investors did not want to park them in our movie. The completion of the financing took another year.
The story concerns Julie and Alex, who plan to commit suicide by jumping into Niagara Falls. We started casting almost two years prior to shooting, and the journey was excruciating, magical and expensive. For the part of Julie, my first choice was Australian actress Toni Collette. I met her in London, she liked the script, apparently liked me and we had a great night out with several of her actor friends including Christian Bale, Kelly McDonald and Parker Posey at the private Soho Club in London. I’m namedropping because it’s important for a director to know as many name actors as possible. Why? You don’t have to call their agent first, you can call them directly! (That, by the way, is how directors like Robert Altman get so many stars for very little money into their movies.) That we independents got into this star-feeding-frenzy at all might have to do with the fact that, no matter how tiny your budget, the first question you hear is: Who is your star? We stubbornly followed our hearts and were just looking for the best actors for the parts.
When Toni’s agent called to tell me that “Miss Collette has moved on now” (euphemism for “she got a better paying job”), the search for Julie was on again. One of my choices for Alex was John Hannah. Again, London was the meeting place. He liked the script and apparently liked me… but one day his agent called to say “John is doing The Mummy now.”
In LA I met Jane Adams together with Chris Eigeman. Jane didn’t talk much-in fact, she didn’t talk at all. Apparently her agent forbade her from talking to me before the deal was finished. Chris talked a lot. Somehow the chemistry between the three of us didn’t work, which taught me to never meet two leads together for the first time.
Brit Jason Fleming was another possibility. This encounter was purely accidental in Toronto at Joso’s, an idiosyncratic restaurant frequented by many movie people in town (I also shot a restaurant scene there for free). Jason liked the script and we got along well, but his agent wanted to sell us Jason’s girlfriend, the very talented and beautiful Leana Heady. I’d like to work with her in the future, but by that time I had already found my star: Helen Baxendale (best known to American audiences as Emily, Ross’ second wife on Friends). There was instant chemistry.
For the part of Alex I decided on Tim Dutton, who had a short stint on Ally McBeal and was fantastic in Tom & Viv. Tim has a touch of Hugh Grant, very comedic, but a bit more mature, and was just perfect for the distressed writer. I met Tim in LA for lunch where we discussed the script. Afterward we went shopping, which is an interesting way of getting to know an actor more privately (and one of the tricks I can recommend).
Our casting director in Toronto, Anne Sketchley, and Margrit began negotiating deals for Helen and Tim with their agent in London. Why is it so difficult to convince an agent, manager, lawyer etc. that you can’t spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on their clients when you do a low-budget film? We can only say that the Brits have learned a lot from their tough American cousins, but they are certainly not as colorful: When Margrit called an agent in Hollywood and told him we could not afford his actor, the agent-on his mobile, driving on some freeway-began crying and hung up. Ever the good psychoanalyst (she was in her former life) Margrit called him back and started crisis intervention.
We got a group of wonderful Canadian actors like Daniel MacIvor, Emmy-winner Susan Haskell (who paid her own trip from LA to Toronto) and Guylaine St-Onge as a sexy English professor.